Sarah Gall is a political data scientist and membership secretary for the UK’s Conservative Friends of Australia. She previously headed up political and policy research for the Prime Minister of Australia.
On Saturday, Australia’s second most populous state went to the polls at the 2022 Victorian state election. The result was a historic win for the Labor government of Daniel Andrews, which secured a third consecutive term.
Leading up to the poll, many political pundits labelled this election a referendum on the premier himself, who had been nicknamed “Dictator Dan” by critics following his handling of the Covid-19 response.
Andrews’ handling led to Melbourne – Victoria’s capital – being one of the most locked-down cities in the world. Melburnians spent a total of 262 days under strict stay-at-home orders.
These restrictions far exceeded what was experienced in the UK. To name a few: a curfew from 8pm until 5am was imposed; residents were not able to travel further than a 3.1 mile radius from their homes; and police check-points were set up to ensure compliance of citizens.
These protestors were even Labor’s own people: union members from the militant Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), protesting against Andrews’ vaccination mandates for construction workers.
The CFMEU still backed Labor however, urging voters to vote for Andrews despite also calling him a “prick” in their election ads – this proving that there’s no interest like self-interest for the CFMEU, who benefit from a Labor government which has pledged to abolish the construction industry watchdog.
It also highlights Labor’s ability to buy support for the low, low price of £61 billion in state infrastructure projects. This is despite net debt projected to rise from £66 billion in 2022-23 to £93 billion in 2025-26.
This is a figure that exceeds the combined net debt of the other three eastern states – New South Wales, Queensland, and Tasmania – and whose residents account for just over half the size of the Australian population, compared to Victoria, which accounts for around a quarter.
In addition to Andrews presiding over record debt levels and draconian restrictions, Victoria has lagged behind the rest of Australia in returning to normality. While the last lockdown ended just over a year ago, the Andrews Government only lifted the work-from-home advice last month.
This has meant that Melbourne’s CBD office occupancy rates are still at 40 per cent – less than half pre-pandemic levels – which in turn has reduced vital revenue streams for small businesses, such as cafes, retail stores, and even private health services.
Despite all of this, Victorians voted back in the Labor government with a majority, a damning indictment of the opposition.
Unfortunately for the Victorian Liberal Party, it has struggled to attract new talent, perhaps owing to the fact that they’ve been out of government for 19 of the past 23 years. As such, the party re-appointed Matthew Guy, who had already led the party to a brutal defeat at the last election.
Guy had replaced Michael O’Brien in September 2021 after O’Brien had been criticised by his own party for not landing any political blows against Andrews for his handling of the pandemic.
In reality however, the majority of Victorians approved of the premier’s handling of Covid-19, citing his tough decisions to lockdown based on medical advice to keep people safe, the quick vaccination roll-out, and his clear communication and strong leadership.
While there was a palpable level of anger within the community and strong hatred towards the premier, this was a minority of voters. These voters were unlikely to have been in marginal electorates and instead in electorates where pandemic restrictions would have been felt the hardest, such as those from working-class backgrounds.
The issue with this tactic was evident in Saturday’s results which showed that while there were large swings towards the Liberals in safe Labor seats, not one of these produced a seat gain for the opposition.
In contrast, the Labor Party had swings towards it where it mattered – in marginal eastern Melbourne seats. These areas are traditionally more white collar, conservative and likely to have been less hard-done by pandemic restriction.
Interestingly, the east of Melbourne was also an area which turned from Liberal to ‘Teal’ at the federal election earlier this year.
At this state election however, the two state electorates within the lost federal electorate of Kooyong have returned to the Liberals (NB counting is still in progress at the time of writing and could be subject to change). This is despite the record high number of first preference votes for other minor parties and independent candidates at the expense of the two major parties, who both suffered swings against.
There is a clear political realignment occurring within Australia. This election however, continues to highlight the issues that the Liberal Party has, not just at the state-level, but also at the federal-level in finding its base. Until then, it is likely to struggle against the Labor Party regardless of how poorly they do in government.